Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Karen Herbert, Publisher, Setting

‘The River Mouth’ by Karen Herbert

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 256 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Karen Herbert’s The River Mouth is an impressive debut crime novel set in a small coastal town in Western Australia.

An old case is re-opened

It has been 10 years since local teenager Darren Davies was murdered. He was shot dead and found floating face down in the Weymouth River. No one has ever been convicted of the crime.

But now his mother, Sandra, receives some unexpected and disturbing news: her best friend, Barbara, has been found dead in the Pilbara, in the north of the state, and forensics have discovered a match — her DNA matches the DNA found under Darren’s fingernails all those years ago. Did Barbara kill her best friend’s son, and, if so, why did she do it?

The story alternates between the present day  — following Sandra as she tries to make sense of the situation and the newly reopened police investigation (she refuses to believe her friend had anything to do with the murder of her son) — and the past when Darren and his friends hung out together in the 25 days leading up to his death. The case is clouded by a series of rapes (or attempted rapes) of teenage girls around the time that Darren was killed.

As these twin narratives unfold, the author provides a steady drip-feed of new information and clues to help shape the reader’s perception of what might have happened and who might be involved. There’s a list of potential culprits, including Darren’s trio of teenage friends and his adopted father, which is only matched by a series of well-kept secrets involving everything from teenage romance to money made in illicit ways. The small-town intrigue resonates off the page.

Great cast of characters

The story is populated by a strong cast of characters — the teenage boys are particularly well-drawn and Sandra, who is a nurse at the local hospital, is a strong, resilient lead, the kind of woman who just gets on with things and sees the best in everyone.

The sense of time and place, swinging backwards and forwards by a decade, is expertly done. There’s plenty of cultural references — to movies, music and TV shows, and even the ubiquitous visit to a video store — to provide the right level of historical “flavour”.

The River Mouth also brilliantly captures the minutiae of small-town life, where everyone knows everyone else’s business (or thinks they do).

It’s incredibly well-plotted, so much so I failed to guess the culprit. But this is not a twist-driven novel (thankfully); its pacing is gentle as the twin storylines take their time to unfold. And the resolution, which caught me by surprise, feels believable, unlike so many other crime novels which tend to tie things up in preposterous ways.

I really look forward to seeing what Karen Herbert comes up with next!

This is my 23rd book for #AWW2021. I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters because the author grew up in Geraldton on the midwest coast of Western Australia and now lives in Perth. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

20 books of summer (2021), Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Consolation’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 394 pages; 2020.

Consolation is the third book in Garry Disher’s “Constable Paul Hirschhausen” series of crime novels. Last week it won Best Crime Fiction at the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards.

I have previously read and reviewed the two earlier novels in the series — Bitter Wash Road and Peace — and thought both immensely rewarding crime reads. Consolation is more of the same.

Crimes in winter

In this novel, which is set in the middle of winter (about six months on from the previous book in the series), things are relatively quiet for Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen, who runs a one-man police station in Tiverton, a small town about three hours north of Adelaide. Much of his work is proactive and community-based. Twice a week he carries out long-range patrols, driving through cold and muddy conditions, to visit remote properties to check on residents.

The only thing that is causing concern is the presence of a “snowdropper” — Australian slang for someone who steals clothing from a clothesline — in town. He (or she) has a penchant for old ladies’ underwear and is causing a bit of a stir.

But that ongoing crime soon gets superseded by a string of other potentially more serious crimes, including a stock agent said to be ripping off local investors in a failed “get rich quick” property scam. The agent has pissed off two investors, a father and son team, who have decided to take the law into their own hands, with potentially devastating (and violent) consequences.

Meanwhile, a school teacher tells Hirsch that she is worried about one of her remote students whom she teaches via the internet. When Hirsch drives out to the property to carry out a welfare check, he finds the girl living in appalling conditions, tied up in a caravan, and has to take drastic action to save her.

And no sooner is Hirsch investigating that situation than he is alerted to another problem: an elderly lady in town has discovered that she’s been defrauded of thousands of dollars. But who is the culprit? Her hippy niece? Or the well-meaning neighbours who have eyes on her property?

All these myriad crimes, which have to be investigated concurrently, occur just as Hirsch’s boss, the sergeant based in the next biggest town, is forced to take sick leave. This means Hirsch is now acting sergeant, leading these investigations while looking after two younger officers only a year out of police school. Is he up to the job?

UK edition

For those that have followed this series from the start, Consolation offers some rewarding character development.

Hirsch, a whistleblower banished to Tiverton from the city in the first novel, has finally found his feet after a rocky start. He is familiar with the area now, knows all the people who live in it, and even has a steady girlfriend: Wendy Street, whom he first met in Bitter Wash Road. (The charming relationship he has with his girlfriend’s daughter is particularly edifying and is one of the nicest things about this book.)

He’s more “rural wise”, too, and knows how to handle the roads, the conditions and the remoteness of the area, constantly looking for those “two bars” on his mobile phone whenever he thinks he might be entering dangerous territory and in need of quick communication.

Realistic police procedural

I think what’s interesting about this series is that Disher isn’t solely focused on throwing in one big crime and having his protagonist solve it. In this novel, Hirsch is dealing with multiple crimes, from fraud to child neglect, and running the investigations on a shoestring, sometimes with the help of more senior police from the city, but always having to do it against the clock while managing local sensitivities.

Perhaps the only element of Consolation I wasn’t too sure about was a storyline involving Hirsch being stalked by a lonely woman who takes a shine to him, only because it didn’t always ring true.

That aside, this is another fine example of “rural noir” by Garry Disher and I hope he’s penning a new one in this series. If he is, I will be the first in the queue to buy it!

This is my 20th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback from my local independent book store when it was published late last year.

Literary prizes, News

Ned Kelly Award winners announced

The winners of the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards for crime fiction and true crime writing have been announced.

Best Crime Fiction went to Consolation by Garry Disher. I am three-quarters of the way through this novel at the moment and it’s excellent, so expect a review soon.

Best Debut Crime Fiction went to The Second Son by Loraine Peck , which I read earlier in the year as part of my Southern Cross Crime Month.

Best True Crime went to Stalking Claremont: Inside the hunt for a serial killer by Bret Christian, which has been on my TBR since publication last year and which is another I hope to read soon seeing as it’s about an investigation that happened right here in Perth.

Best International Crime Fiction went to We Begin at the End by Chris Whittaker.

You can find out more about the awards and what the judges said about the prize winners via the announcement on the official website.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Peace’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 432 pages; 2020.

Peace is the second in Garry Disher’s trilogy known as “the Paul Hirschhausen novels”.  I read the first, Bitter Wash Road, late last year and considered it one of the best Australian crime novels I had ever read.

This one is just as good, but it’s (pleasingly) not more of the same. There’s a shift in focus to rural policing and the insidious ways in which city crime can seep into isolated locations, helped partly by the rise in social media. There’s also a minor narrative thread about an unrecognised massacre of the local indigenous population by a pioneer of the district, suggesting that crime has always permeated the ground upon which Hirsch now treads.

In fact, it’s the isolated rural setting (the northern part of South Australia, about three hours from Adelaide), which gives this police procedural a distinctive Australian flavour.

In this dry farmland country, Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen runs a one-cop station and spends a lot of his time on the road carrying out welfare checks and following up on petty crimes such as vandalism and the theft of household items. But in this novel, set during the supposedly festive season, the crimes Hirsch has to investigate escalate from the predictable Christmas time pub brawls, drunk driving offences and traffic accidents to more serious incidents, including murder.

First, a middle-aged woman from the local “crime family”, crashes her car into the local pub. Later, a young child is locked in a hot car and almost dies.

But when the local pony breeder has several of her show ponies slaughtered in a vicious attack, attracting the attention of the national media, the entire community feels put on alert and Hirsch knows he’s not going to have a particularly peaceful Christmas. Who would brutally stab animals and leave them to die slow, painful deaths? What sort of criminal is living in the town’s midst? And will he (or she) turn their attention to humans next?

The UK edition of Peace

A slow burner, but worth the effort

Peace is a bit of a slow burner and not quite as complex as its predecessor. This novel is more about small-town life, the characters that live in it, the (small) power plays that go on between citizens and the grudges and resentments that people harbour against neighbours and acquaintances.

To get to the bottom of what’s going on, Hirsch must use his social and networking skills as much as his police skills.

It’s only when the “heavy-duty” crime occurs — a murder of a woman in an isolated farmhouse — that the book becomes a proper page-turner involving car chases, line searches and a dogged hunt for the perpetrator. The investigation, which isn’t straightforward, draws in other police, including those from Sydney, some of whom have questionable agendas of their own.

It all makes for a cracking read, one that addresses bullying, animal cruelty, domestic violence and police corruption.

As ever the characterisation is spot on whether Disher is writing about the small town crims, the local male meddler, the dedicated GP, the troubled community “outcast”, the shop girl or the neighbouring police sergeant.

I raced through it in no time, and look forward to reading the final part of the trilogy soon.

Peace was longlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award and was a Sunday Times “crime pick of the month” in the UK.

This is my 18th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it in paperback from my local independent book store in November 2020.

News

2021 Ned Kelly Awards shortlists announced

Here’s some good news for fans of crime writing: the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards for crime fiction and true crime writing have been announced.

Established in 1995, these awards are administered by the Australian Crime Writers Association (ACWA) and are named after Australia’s infamous 19th century bushranger Ned Kelly.

The awards are split into four separate categories as follows (hyperlinks take you to my reviews):

BEST CRIME FICTION

  • Consolation by Garry Disher (Text) (on my TBR!)

  • Gathering Dark by Candice Fox (Penguin Random House)

  • A Testament of Character by Sulari Gentill (Pantera Press)

  • The Survivors by Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan)

  • The Good Turn by Dervla McTiernan (Harper Collins) (on my TBR!)

  • Tell Me Lies by J.P. Pomare (Hachette) (on my TBR!)

  • When She Was Good by Michael Robotham (Hachette)

  • White Throat by Sarah Thornton (Text) (on my TBR!)

BEST DEBUT CRIME FICTION

  • The Good Mother by Rae Cairns (Bandrui Publishing)

  • The Second Son by Loraine Peck (Text)

  • The Bluffs by Kyle Perry (Penguin Random House) (abandoned this one)

  • The Night Whistler by Greg Woodland (Text)

BEST TRUE CRIME

  • The Husband Poisoner by Tanya Bretherton (Hachette)

  • Stalking Claremont: Inside the hunt for a serial killer by Bret Christian (Harper Collins) (on my TBR!)

  • Public Enemies by Mark Dapin (Allen and Unwin)

  • Hazelwood by Tom Doig (Penguin Random House)

  • Witness by Louise Milligan (Hachette)

BEST INTERNATIONAL CRIME FICTION

  • The Guest List by Lucy Foley (Harper Collins)

  • The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman (Allen and Unwin)

  • Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar (Text)

  • We Begin at the End by Chris Whittaker (Allen and Unwin)

  • Broken by Don Winslow (Harper Collins)

The winners will be announced at an award ceremony next month.

You can find out more about the Ned Kelly awards on the ACWA website. All previous category winners are listed on this Wikipedia page.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Gabriel Bergmoser, Harper Collins, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, TBR 21

‘The Hunted’ by Gabriel Bergmoser

Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 284 pages; 2020.

Terrifying. Horrifying. Disturbing. All these words spring to mind when trying to sum up Gabriel Bergmoser’s high-octane suspense novel The Hunted.

Set somewhere in the Australian outback (there are no place names in this book), it’s a scary mix of Wolf Creek meets Wake in Fright with a dash of Fear is the Rider and The Dead Heart thrown in for good measure.

I raced through it with my heart in my throat one moment and feeling like I was going to gag the next. Yes, it’s an incredibly visceral read and not always pleasant because it features some pretty gruesome scenes. You have been warned.

In the UK, the book is published by Faber & Faber

Service station standoff

The story focuses on Frank, a service station owner, who runs his business single-handedly on a little-used highway in the middle of nowhere.

His teenage granddaughter, Allie, whom he barely knows, is staying with him for a few weeks. Allie has been having problems at school, so her parents figured taking her out of her normal city environment might help “fix her attitude”. Yet the pair rarely see each other because Frank spends long hours at the servo and Allie sleeps late.

But one morning their quiet existence is shattered when a car pulls into the service station and a badly injured, blood-soaked woman falls out. She’s being pursued by a mob who seemingly want to kill her — and they’ve done a pretty good job of nearly doing that so far.

What happens next is an adrenaline-fuelled high stakes drama involving Frank, Allie and a group of customers who band together to protect the almost-dying woman from further danger, while they themselves get caught up in a terrifying standoff that occurs on Frank’s property involving crazed men, guns and explosions.

Woman on the run

To escalate the tension even further in this super-fast-paced novel, the author includes a second narrative thread, which goes back in time to tell the story of Maggie, the badly injured woman.

In chapters headed “Then”, which alternate with others headed “Now”, we learn how Maggie hooks up with a fellow backpacker on the road to experience the “real” Australia, only to land in an isolated country town where everything is not what it seems.

What Maggie discovers in that town triggers a massive road chase in which she becomes “the hunted” of the title. I can’t really reveal more than that for fear of ruining the plot, but let’s just say it’s pretty grim…

Too much violence

As much as I enjoyed the page-turning suspense of this novel (I ate it up in a day unable to tear my eyes away), I had issues with some of the violence in The Hunted, because it often felt gratuitous. On more than one occasion, I felt nauseous reading visceral descriptions of what happens to human bodies when they’re beaten or shot at.

Making one of the lead characters female doesn’t alleviate the misogyny in this book either. I felt sickened by the men in this novel and the ways in which they got off on doing horrible things to women.

Yes, I know it’s fiction and I know it’s supposed to be a thrilling horror story, but I question the author’s motivations: what is the point of the violence and the misogyny? If it was written in the 1970s or 1980s it might be understandable, but this is the 21st century  — surely our attitudes have moved on and we don’t need to be titillated by this kind of content?

According to the book’s publishers, a film adaptation of The Hunted is currently being developed in a joint production between two US companies. It certainly has all those qualities that mainstream Hollywood loves: car chases, guns, explosions — and death. I don’t think I could bare to watch it…

About the author¹: Gabriel Bergmoser is an award-winning Melbourne-based author and playwright. He won the prestigious Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award in 2015, was nominated for the 2017 Kenneth Branagh Award for New Drama Writing and went on to win several awards at the 2017 VDL One Act Play Festival circuit. In 2016, his first young adult novel, Boone Shepard, was shortlisted for the Readings Young Adult Prize. (1. Source: Harper Collins Australia website.)

Where to buy: Widely available in most territories.

This is my 4th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here.

It is also my 6th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Garry Disher, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Bitter Wash Road’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 336 pages; 2013.

Bitter Wash Road (published as Hell to Pay in the US) by Garry Disher is the first in a trilogy known as “the Paul Hirschhausen novels”. It has been described as the “gold standard for Australian noir” — and I’d have to agree. I haven’t enjoyed a distinctively Australian crime novel as good as this for a while.

Set in South Australia’s wheatbelt, three hours north of Adelaide, the hot, dry landscape is as much a character as the city policeman “Hirsch” who has been exiled to a single-officer police station.

It shares certain traits with Jane Harper’s best-selling The Dry — which arguably put Australian crime novels on the international map in recent times — but predates it by three years and is far more accomplished, evocative and complex.

Whistleblower exiled to a small town

The story goes something like this. As a whistleblower, reporting on corrupt colleagues, Constable Paul “Hirsch” Hirschhausen has had his promising city career cut short. Now, exiled in Tiverton, a tiny speck of a town in the wheatbelt, he deals with low-level crime.

As if adjusting to life alone in a strange town isn’t enough, his new colleagues in the nearest big town, where his boss is based, hate and despise him, and he is constantly on alert because he knows there are certain people who would rather he just disappeared.

In the opening chapter, when he’s called out to investigate gunshots on the isolated Bitter Wash Road, Hirsch realises he’s completely exposed. If anyone is going to kill him, this is the perfect place to set up an ambush. But who could it be? The very police officers who should be providing him with back up? Or the pair of fugitive killers who had last been seen in town, heading for Longreach, more than 2,000km away, in a distinctive black Chrysler?

He’s wrong on both counts, but it sets up the mood for the rest of the novel, for Hirsch is a policeman whose integrity and honesty is challenged at almost every turn, a man who fears for his life, who worries about his city-based parents who have been threatened in the past, and struggles to fit in to a community where everyone knows everyone else’s business but tend to keep themselves to themselves.

UK edition

Complex murder mystery

Once the character of Hirsch has been established, the book gets into the nitty-gritty of a complex murder investigation in which a teenage girl is found dead, lying facedown in a ditch by the side of the road, a victim of a suspected hit-and-run.

The investigation is far from straight forward and before long Hirsch realises that there are vested interests and hidden agendas at work. As an outsider in an isolated country town, getting answers out of anyone proves increasingly difficult. What are people hiding? And does it have anything to do with his role as a police whistleblower?

Bitter Wash Road, with its multiple plot lines, focuses on a disturbing murder that highlights how no police force (or station) is immune from corruption and vested interests. It also shows how the closing of ranks against an outsider can obscure the pursuit of justice — with devastating consequences.

Intelligent crime novels don’t come much better than this — and I’m looking forward to reading the rest in the series, which comprises Peace (2019) and Consolation (2020).

Bitter Wash Road was shortlisted for Best Crime Novel at the 2014 Ned Kelly Awards and won the German Crime Prize in 2016. It is widely available in all territories.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jane Harper, Macmillan, Publisher, Setting

‘The Survivors’ by Jane Harper

Fiction – Kindle edition; Macmillan Australia; 384 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jane Harper’s latest novel The Survivors switches focus from the Queensland outback of her previous novel to the island state of Tasmania. Here, on the windswept coast of a small local community (the fictional Evelyn Bay) a young woman in town for the summer is murdered, her body found washed up on the beach in the early hours of the morning.

The crime is a reminder of a previous tragedy in which a 14-year-old girl went missing on the night of a big storm 12 years earlier. That same night, two local men, Finn and Toby, also died when their boat overturned in stormy seas.

The timing of the murder is unfortunate because Finn’s brother Kieran is back in town. Kieran blames himself for his elder brother’s death all those years ago and the occurrence of yet another tragedy triggers painful memories for him. He’s arrived in Evelyn Bay from Sydney — with his long-term girlfriend and young baby daughter in tow — to help his mother pack up the family home so she can move her husband, who has early-onset dementia, into a nursing home in Hobart.

The Survivors is essentially a murder mystery focussed on two women who lost their lives more than a decade apart. It’s mainly centred on Kieran and his family, and a small cohort of childhood friends, now adults, who have remained living in the town. It’s a slow burner, the kind of story that unfolds slowly but surely, and is much about guilt, redemption and family loyalty, as it is about trying to solve a murder.

What I liked

The number of potential suspects
The Survivors isn’t a traditional police procedural or even a typical crime novel. It’s essentially a murder mystery that is “solved” by a small cast of characters who piece together clues discovered by the police and their own “investigation” (I use the term loosely). There are plenty of would-be culprits — the mainland genre author who has purchased the big house in town, Kieran’s father who wanders the local area at strange times of the night, the young kitchen hand who drove the victim home from work, and so on. Every one of them could, potentially, be the murderer — and the fun is trying to guess who it might be. The ending, I have to say, is satisfactory — and not the person I suspected at all.

The setting
In previous novels, Harper has faithfully captured a diversity of Australian settings, from a small rural community battling the ongoing effects of drought in The Dry to an outback cattle station that has to generate its own electricity it is so remote in The Lost Man.

In The Survivors, she captures what it is like to live in a small coastal community, some 900-strong, the kind of place that is super-busy with tourists in the summer and quiet and closed-in on itself when the season is over. It’s also the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business (or thinks they do). She nails the gossip, innuendo and rumours that can fester when the facts aren’t truly known, and shows how this can spread like wildfire, especially via community online pages. She also nails what it is like to grow up in those places and to never truly escape them because even if you move away and only return on holiday, the locals think they “know” you and don’t think twice about casting judgement.

The dementia aspect
The depiction of dementia is handled sensitively and clearly shows the burdens placed on the primary caregiver — in this case, Kieran’s 64-year-old mother — and the family members who have to adjust to a new reality in which their loved one barely recognises them.

What I didn’t like

The dead woman trope
The Survivors is yet another crime novel where a dead woman is the central plot point. Harper doesn’t sensationalise the murder and makes reference to the fact that women must negotiate the world in a different way to men (never walking alone down dark streets, for example), but it still remains a story that relies on an old trope that I, personally, am incredibly sick of. It really is time to change the story.

The repetition
There’s a lot of repetition in this story, a lot of rehashing old ground, a lot of telling us that Kieran, for instance, has been wracked with guilt for more than a decade, and that the storm 12 years ago did more than wreck trees and buildings, it wrecked lives too. Lose half the repetition and this story would be not only leaner, but it would also be stronger, too.

The clichés
As much as Harper is great at capturing small-town life, it does seem that she only creates places solely populated by white people. While this story does feature a “half-Singaporean” (this is how Kieran describes his girlfriend), everyone else in this story is white. In fact, everyone in this novel feels like a stereotype: the guys are all sporty types, there’s a town beauty, a hard-working put-upon mother, a bumbling male police officer. Do I need to go on?

An entertaining read

No doubt you are going to see loads of reviews of this book in the coming weeks and months. And it will be nominated for awards and top the best-seller lists both here in Australia and the UK, where Harper has a good following.

But this is a fairly average crime novel. By all means, read it for the setting and the fun of guessing who committed the crime, but don’t expect to have your world set on fire. Sometimes, though, that’s enough, especially if you are just looking for a bit of temporary escapism. The Survivors is an entertaining read, no more, no less.

It will be published in the UK in hardcover next January and the USA next February. A Kindle version is already available in the UK.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2020

Aoife Clifford, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster Australia

‘Second Sight’ by Aoife Clifford

Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster, 272 pages; 2020.

Second Sight, by Australian author Aoife Clifford, is a well-plotted crime thriller set in a small coastal town.

It focuses on two separate, possibly linked, crimes: the disappearance of a teenage girl more than 20 years earlier and the death of an Irish tourist punched by a local man who was once friends with the missing teen. It is structured around two intertwined narratives — one set in the present day told in the first person, the other set in the past (New Year’s Eve, 1996, to be precise) told in the third person.

In the first storyline, lawyer Eliza Carmody reluctantly returns to her home town of Kinsale, because she’s been hired to defend the electricity company blamed for a devastating bush fire that killed eight people two years earlier.

An image of a burnt-out car comes into my mind. The smoke had been so thick she’d driven it off the road and lurched into a ditch, unable to move, like a boat stuck on a reef. The fire had done the rest. The first day I started working on the case, I looked at the list of the dead, eight of them. I read their names and traced my one degree of separation from each of them — school, family friends, vaguely remembered faces from the beach or shops — and then put the paper in my filing cabinet. Sometimes the only way to cope is to separate out bits of your life and keep them in solitary confinement.

On the day Eliza returns “home” to meet an expert as part of her research for the court case, she witnesses a violent altercation in the street which results in the death of an Irish tourist working in the local pub. Because she knows the man who landed the fatal king punch, Eliza is inextricably drawn back into a past — and a community — she’s long tried to forget.

The second storyline focuses on the mystery of what happened to Eliza’s friend Grace, who disappeared, never to be seen again, on New Year’s Eve, 1996. When bones are discovered at a historic homestead near town, Eliza becomes convinced they must belong to her friend…

Typical psychological thriller

Second Sight is typical psychological thriller territory, fast-paced and well-plotted, but with a literary bent.

Clifford paints an authentic portrait of a small town still reeling from a fatal bushfire and her depiction of local characters — the publican turned prospective politician, the quiet loner thought to be the arsonist, the compassionate nurses caring for people they have known all their lives — feel believable. She really captures what it is like to grow up in these kinds of places — the drinking culture, for instance, and the school ties you can never escape.

And Eliza, with her discoloured eyes, strained relationship with her older sister, and a beloved policeman father now living out his days in a nursing home, is well drawn. She’s flawed and feisty, prone to making unwise decisions and behaving in a not particularly professional manner. (Admittedly, I didn’t like her very much.)

But I had some issues with the novel. There are a couple of ludicrous plot twists, some of the heart-hammering moments are a bit overdone, and there’s too much sex in it. (There’s a rape scene, however, which is graphic and shocking, but sensitively handled.)

Second Sight is good, escapist fiction. It brims with small-town claustrophobia, treachery and scandal, and has a genuinely surprising denouement that makes all that furious page-turning worth it in the end.

This novel, first published in Australia in 2018 and republished with a new cover this month, will be published in the UK on 27 January. It was published by Pegasus in the US last year.

This is my 1st book for #AWW2020

Australia, Author, Book review, Christian White, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harper Collins, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Nowhere Child’ by Christian White

Fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Collins; 400 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

Christian White’s The Nowhere Child is the latest in that new wave of Australian crime writing that is attracting an international audience. Like Jane Harper’s The Dry, it, too, has won a Victorian Premier Literary Award and, fresh on the heels of its Australian publication success, will be published in the UK next month.

But there’s an important difference here: this book, to me, does not feel particularly Australian. Only a fraction of it is set Down Under (in suburban Melbourne); the bulk of it is set in Kentucky, USA. For that reason The Nowhere Child feels too generic to be classified as “Southern Cross Crime”, though I’m sure that won’t stop the publishers from marketing it as such.

That said, it’s a fast-paced read (as you would expect for a psychological thriller) and has an intriguing premise: Kim Leamy, a young Australian photographer, is approached by a man, who claims she’s really Sammy Went, a toddler abducted from the USA 20 years earlier.

This news, greeted at first with disdain and disbelief, turns Kim’s life upside down. If she’s really Sammy Went, how did she get to Australia? Was her late mother responsible? Has her entire life been based on a lie?

A narrative that juxtaposes past and present

To flesh out how Sammy went missing, along with the long-term repercussions of that event and the family secrets that lead up to it, the novel is split into three narrative threads — Melbourne, now; Kentucky, now; and Kentucky, then — which are told in alternate chapters. This builds up the suspense element of the story and lends it a page-turning quality.

The characterisation is good, particularly Kim, whose confusion and distress seems to resonate off the page, but the American cast — the closet homosexual, the alcoholic “white trash” woman living in a trailer, the pious leader of a kooky religious sect et al — felt slightly clichéd to me.

Like Phoebe Locke’s The Tall Man (which I reviewed yesterday), The Nowhere Child is right out of the Stephen King playbook as well. (There are even minor references to “a tall man made entirely of shadows” that Kim dreams about!) That’s not to say the book is bad; it’s simply not particularly original.

Its expertly paced, deftly plotted and has a (rare for the genre) satisfying conclusion. An entertaining story, The Nowhere Child is sure to be lapped up by millions of readers across the world. It will be published in the UK on 21 March, but can be downloaded on Kindle now.